Once upon a time, the humble diving watch had a single purpose: diving. Nowadays, however, it has become an increasingly popular choice for suit-and-tie office workers and casual weekend warriors alike. We’ve come a long way since a bunch of French frogmen set out on their quest to find a functional tool watch to accompany them on their dangerous underwater missions in the early 1950s.
The Original Diving Watch
Many people assume the first commercially produced diving watch came from Rolex. Given the incredible popularity of their Submariner and Sea-Dweller models, it’s not hard to see why. While it’s true that Rolex—and several other notable brands, such as Omega—have made substantial contributions to the development of mechanical dive watches over the years, it was actually another Swiss watch manufacturer that created the blueprint for the mechanical diving watch we know and love today: Blancpain.
These days recreational diving and snorkeling are very popular activities, undertaken pretty much anywhere there is a beach or body of water with something interesting to look at. Back in the early 1950s, it was a different story. At that time, diving was primarily an activity undertaken by elite soldiers—referred to as frogmen or underwater commandos—who needed to stealthily attack key positions or conduct daring raids. The squadron central to our story today is the French “Nageuers de combat” (French commando frogmen), established by the French government in 1952 in the aftermath of World War II.
Founders Captain Robert “Bob” Maloubier and his Lieutenant, Claude Jean Riffaud, were tasked with picking the squadron members and equipping them with all necessary scuba gear. The only problem was that neither man could find a mechanical watch that was suitable for the specific and rather extreme needs of their men. Given the rather extreme importance of timing in the missions they would be carrying out, this quickly became a pressing issue.
The Amateur Diver
Around the same time, Jean-Jacques Fiechter, then CEO of the centuries-old Swiss watch manufacturer, Blancpain, was working on his own concept for a diving watch. A passionate amateur diver in his free time, a narrow escape from a mistimed dive helped him realize the need for a robust yet easy-to-read timing instrument that could be relied upon even under extreme conditions. He quickly came up with a laundry list of requirements for what would become the first mechanical dive watch: water resistant, self-winding, anti-magnetic, and legible both in cloudy water and at night.
As the CEO of a Swiss watch manufacturer, he was uniquely well-placed to test out his ideas in real time, and it was not long before he began to patent some of the solutions he developed. These included a double sealed crown that guaranteed the watch remained water resistant even if the crown was accidentally pulled out during a dive, a rotating bezel with suitable markings that could be read using the minute hand to keep track of elapsed time, and a special locking mechanism that prevented the bezel from rotating mid-dive (and also kept salt and sand out so it would rotate smoothly).
He also solved a common issue with screw-down case backs not sealing correctly by placing the “O” ring seal in a channel with an additional metallic ring on top to hold it in position. This patented invention ensured a consistently strong seal when the case back was screwed down.
Eventually, Maloubier and Riffaud heard about Fiechter’s experiments with diving watches and came to him with their specific requirements (having failed to find anyone else capable of producing a watch that met their standards.) The three men quickly discovered they were on the same page in terms of the technical specifications a mechanical diving watch should have. Shortly after their initial discussions, Fiechter was able to deliver 20 watches for rigorous testing.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the watches passed with flying colors and were soon adopted as the official watch of the French combat diving corps. Other militaries would soon follow, starting with the Israelis and then the Americans, Spanish, Germans, Danes, Norwegians, Swedes, and Pakistanis. Thus, the legend of the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms was born.
Following this initial success, Blancpain went on to introduce numerous models to the Fifty Fathoms family. Many were in direct response to feedback received from the various militaries using the watch at the time. For example, the Fifty Fathoms MIL-SPEC 1 from 1957-58 featured a water tightness indicator on the dial and became a standard feature of an American combat swimmer’s gear. Now an iconic model, Blancpain introduced the limited edition “Tribute to Fifty Fathoms MIL-SPEC” last year to mark the model’s 50th anniversary.
Today, the Fifty Fathoms remains a flagship Blancpain collection, capturing that same sense of adventure as the first modern diving watch from 1953. There’s much more variety now, of course, but the main signature elements that forged the reputation of the original model and established it as the archetypal diving watch are still present. Whether you choose a time-honored Fifty-Fathoms Automatic or go for something slightly more modern from the Bathyscaphe series, you can be confident in saying you’re wearing a piece of history on your wrist.